Salt is the flavor enhancer. We need it, love it, crave it. It transforms our food. Natural sea salt is unrefined, hand-harvested, solar dried, pure. Table salt is processed, stripped of all trace minerals, leaving the subtle nuances of flavor behind. The cubed texture is uniform. Iodine and non-caking agents are added to prevent clumping which lend a bitter, acrid flavor. Natural sea salt has its trace minerals left intact giving a richer, more complex flavor than table salt and there are no additives. The texture of natural sea salt varies from region to region, harvester to harvester and is surprisingly different around the world. It can be a thin crisp flake, a coarse chunk, a tiny pearl. The color can be white or grey or pink. Some salt is completely dry, some is left moist. There are many styles to choose from which opens up a world of experimentation.
Trace minerals in sea salt contribute subtle differences in taste, which is one reason you probably have a favorite brand of bottled spring water. Some sea salt is briny and powerful (Japanese Nazuna, South African Sea Salt Flakes), others milder, yet rich and clean (Cornish Sea Salt, Kona Deep Water Sea Salt). Some are rich, moist, and sweet (Fleur de Sel), while others are dry with a distinct sweetness (Pink Salts).
Color differences are due to mineral content and algae (that doesn't sound very appealing, but it is true). Sea salt that is white is harvested from the surface of concentrated brine. Grey Sea Salt is harvested from the bottom of salt ponds and have a higher mineral and clay content which accounts for their color. Murray River Pink Salt Flakes gains its hue from carotene produced by algae in the brine, and mined salts are pink from their mineral and iron content. Red and black salts do not occur in nature. Rather, they are man-made blends using clay or activated charcoal (Hawaiian Red Alaea Sea Salt, Black Lava Sea Salt, or Black Cyprus Sea Salt Flakes). Color adds subtle flavor differences in salt, but it is the visual appeal that makes the colors so intriguing. Try a tomato-mozarrella salad sprinkled with a black sea salt or a white sea salt on a chocolate sauce.
Of all the characteristics of sea salt, it is the salt’s crystallization that has the most dramatic effect. Each salt has its own unique crystal makeup, and, as a result, brings its own special qualities to food.
Texture is critical to all good cooking. It is why one sauce served over pappardelle is a decidedly different dish than the same sauce served over macaroni. It’s why a baked potato topped with butter and sour cream tastes differently than mashed potatoes made with the very same ingredients. And it’s why a plate of eggs finished with a shaving of black truffle is heavenly, and a plate of eggs finished with a dice of black truffle far less appealing.
The textural differences of salt harvested in different parts of the world is just like that of a snowflake. Snow in New England is completely different (some would say awful) than snow in Colorado. We New Englanders love our corner of the States, but if you are a skier, western snow is superior because its flake is drier, lighter, and fluffier. The formation of salt crystals is equally dramatic, as is the effect those salt crystals have on food. Imagine you’ve prepared a Caesar salad. Half the salad you toss in a bowl with finely-grated Parmigiano Reggiano; the other half you toss in a separate bowl with large shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano. The two salads will be decidedly different, in spite of the fact that the cheese in both came from the same wedge. Salt will always be sodium chloride, no differently than Parmigiano will always be Parmigiano, but it’s the discerning cook who takes into consideration the importance of texture. For examples of which salts pair best with which foods, please see Using Natural Salts.